The Appropriation Controversy
EEAC 2009


One of this year's contest winners, James Cooper, based his work on an existing digital photograph by Joe Oppedisano. Here are the views of the artists and the judges of the 2009 Contest.

James Cooper - artist

Crack Takes Over Your Life
(After Joe Oppedisano), 2009
Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 18” x 15"
I studied art & design at college and life drawing was a subject which I loved. The sense of achievement at being able to capture a likeness of the human figure on paper was something that always gave me a great buzz!

I have always joked with friends that if I could combine two of my favourite subjects; admiring the male form and art, it would be my perfect pastime. Out of the blue, earlier last year, whilst reading a free gay supplement on a night out in London, I came a cross an article about how Tom of Finland Foundation was hosting an ‘Emerging Erotic Artist’ competition, it seemed to good to be true! I realised I had get my finger out and start to find a subject for my submission piece. I find muscular men most attractive and although friends kindly offered their services as impromptu models they didn't quite have the shape that I desired. So I started to search for a pose that I could use with the options available to me, luckily the internet is a place that provides millions of accessible images both vintage and current.

I considered all sorts of poses, some from pages of my 'Stade De Dieux' calendar to the hundreds of stills from photo shoots on my favourite internet porn star’s website, however, I couldn't seem to find the right one. Then an image just blew me away, it was from the book UNCENSORED by Joe Oppedisano, it had everything; an awesomely hot model, striking pose, an unusual lower view point, extreme light and dark skin tones highlighting muscle definition and not forgetting possibly the most mouthwatering 'bubble butt' imaginable. I'd found the pose I had to use, if I could capture in my painting an ounce of the eroticism which oozed from the image, I would be over the moon.

I especially liked the way the models butt was framed by the whiteness of the jockstrap and how it almost appeared to rest on the baseball bat, I needed though to add my own slant to the fantasy which had been created by the photographer. As an amateur, I needed to think of how I could work with the existing pose, yet try and inject something to show my own creative skills. I originally thought about the model holding a gun with his left hand, however, I didn't want the viewers attention being taken away from the main focal point. As a fan of word play I also wanted to include text which would make reference to 'rimming' and how with this particular butt, an act that would become ultimately highly addictive. It then made sense to have the model pull the jockstrap down as if to suggest what was to happen next...

Prior to this New Year’s celebrations, a couple of friends and I had a wander round the local gay area in Brighton. On entering a sex shop I excitedly spotted a copy of UNCENSORED and whilst flicking through the pages explained to my friends that I had used a pose from this book in my competition submission which was being revealed the next day. When I got back home and found out that I had been placed 3rd in the Single Figure category I was chuffed to bits, it was a great start to the New Year! The following day, however, I got a rather ambiguous email about how my entry had been removed from the winners list and so a bit flummoxed I called the Foundation as to the problem. I was informed that my painting was a duplicate piece of work done by Joe Oppedisano and the photographer himself had contacted them. My initial reaction was of elation in that someone had recognised the pose and also being extremely star-struck, an international photographer, whose book I had held a few days, before had actually commented on my work! However, the penny dropped and I learnt that actually this wasn't good news and that he was actually unhappy with the situation. It had never occurred to me that by using the pose it would be classed as 'appropriation' and more personally that I may have unintentionally offended someone. If anything I had perhaps hoped that by using the pose it may have been deemed, and to quote an old adage, 'Imitation being the highest form of flattery'.

— James ‘Jambo’ Cooper

Joe Oppedisano - artist

Batter Up, 2007
Digital Photograph, 16” x 20”
© 2008 Joe Oppedisano
Model: Jeremy Mulkahey
Thank you, really, I do thank you, for thinking of my work as something inspirational. I hope I don't offend, when I say this, as it is not to be taken in any way offensive, but as a true flattery. Perhaps my immediate rant about plagiarism was premature.

At 17 I was accepted to The Fashion Institute of Technology. I became obsessed with fashion, clubs and being young, pretty, and gay. That spring, I attended my first BLACK PARTY where I was surrounded by macho, leather clad, hairy men with huge mustaches and muscles, and hyper mascu-line drawings by a man named TOM of Finland. I was obsessed. But scared shitless.

It was 1986, and AIDS was running rampant in New York City, and out of nowhere, a safe-sex ad, drawn by the artist known to me briefly, as TOM of Finland. I decided to research him, and at once I was diving deep into years and years of homo-erotic art that made me equally uncomfortable and aroused. But it was fascinating. It was my fantasy of what men should be, and although exaggerated, personified an ideal.

I changed my major to art history, studying in Florence, Italy, and realized that TOM was not the first to create this hyper-exaggerated ideal, but he was following in the footsteps of the masters before him. Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, Rafael, Caravaggio, they all understood the and in their own way, created the unified vision. Before them even, were the Greeks, the Roman's, the Egyptians, he Aztecs, and so on, from the dawn of time.

In the meantime, Bruce Weber had created himself into the master of mens photography, with one simple image for Calvin Klein underwear, that re-created the Greek icons. Herb Ritts and Victor Skribneski were going similar iconic imagery that was both bold, erotic, yet was selling products to the world.

By 24, I was working as a freelance fashion director for W, Vanity Fair, Details, Vogue, and L'Uomo Vogue. It was not by chance, but by hard work, and the ability to grasp trends and the reason for them and rehash them to the masses.

At 30, I was dressing celebrities, on tour with boy bands, and Ricky Martin, and quite jaded about the fact that I had done everything and more than I had ever dreamed possible. I remember being given ten pages for a fashion story for L'Uomo Vogue, with legendary photographer Arthur Elgort. It was a simple shoot, denim. I brought Arthur the idea to shoot the models (pre-Abercrombie & Fitch) as TOM of Finland drawings, to actually re-create them, not the sexually explicit ones, but the portraits, with the models in nothing but jeans. He laughed, and although at the time I was crushed, it made the jaded boy inside me start to see that maybe I hadn't done everything yet.

One year later, I picked up a camera, and without any formal training in lighting or the workings of a camera, started taking pictures that recalled the icons I loved. Fast forward two years, I got booked to photograph a fashion story for the now lost GENRE magazine, and decided to take the idea I had had years ago, and do it myself.

Flipping through pages of TOM's books, I found twelve images I thought I could use, and since Abercrombie & Fitch had changed the face of models to muscled and masculine, the timing was perfect. I got five boys who I felt represented the TOM man, and went out to a horse farm in New Jersey, on a 110 degree day, and with my self-learned and acutely studied knowledge of light, I tried to recreate, and pay homage to the man who had thrust in my face, my own idea, a shared ideal.

The next few years were spent perfecting, experimenting, and learning what it means to be a photographer. I was humble, as I felt inferior, but I worked day and night in my search for my own "look."

Years later, a book called TESTOSTERONE was published with a collection of my work, which was inspired from all of the artists above, as well as Helmut Newton, Jim French, the movie Fight Club, as well as every step I had taken in the thirty eight years I had been alive.

In the end, my message to you is this... don't "copy" me, but be truly inspired by me, as I am of TOM, and the countless hero's before and since him. That is the greatest flattery in the world.
But I myself never cross the line of plagiarism. It's one thing to study art, another to copy it.

I thank you, again, for considering me good enough to emulate, but use my photos as if you had a life drawing model in front of you, and then, when you create your own image, use the knowledge and trials and tribulations of everyone before you, to create something unique, your own statement.

Art is history, I haven't reinvented the wheel, but maybe just added 4-wheel drive to what I've studied. The job of the artist is to absorb everything he can, from his inspirations, the climate of the times in which he lives, the trends of the day, the anger, joy or repression he has felt, and combine them all into a statement of his own. But, the artist must indeed feel them himself. Otherwise, all he is doing is Xeroxing, and in a Xerox, so much of the detail, pain and heart is lost. Only in this way can art move forward, can people evolve, can changes be made.

My work represents my years growing up and my inner struggle to be the best I could be, in every way, my disappointments and my triumphs. This cannot be Xeroxed, this is personal, and so, is art.

Go forward, and make me gag. THAT will be the greatest form of flattery to me, to TOM, to Helmut, Herb, Bruce, Victor, and everyone else that has touched your heart and rejuvenated and inspired your brain.

— Joe Oppedisano

Steve Day, Steve Night, 2004
Mamiya 645, Kodak Portra 100 film print
© 2008 Joe Oppedisano
Shot for GENRE magazine fashion story
Day & Night, 1980
Gouache on paper
Tom of Finland Foundation #80.10 – 80.11
© 1980 Tom of Finland® Foundation, Inc.

How do I use TOM for inspiration? For these day/night series, it's obvious. I was asked to shoot a super sexy suit story for the magazine.

The idea of a man or anyone as "one" sided is insanity, so I chose to use TOM's drawing to show that every man has an inner pig.

This was done also as a history piece, as the writer wrote in the story how and why I chose TOM to emulate, as that man is not just from one era, but he lives in all of us.

— Joe Oppedisano

Dr. Laura Henkel - judge

Mr. Cooper should have tried to contact Mr. Oppedisano for permission. Regardless if Cooper received permission or not, reference should have been given to Mr. Oppediano's work in Mr. Cooper's piece. This helps in two ways: the original body of work receives credit which allows the viewer to acknowledge its value of importance and Mr. Cooper would not have harmed his creditability as an artist. If Mr. Cooper had acknowledged that it was solely an inspirational rendering for no monetary gain, no harm. Since Cooper created this piece for gain, there is harm. I can understand why Mr. Oppedisano would be upset. I believe ToFF has the right to disqualify the piece. I thought Mr. Cooper's version was appealing and I enjoyed his modifications. It is unfortunate that all parties had to undergo this in a very public manner; however, this has been educational for all who have witnessed this matter. As with anything in life, it is so important to be responsible, respectable and consensual.

Dr. Laura Henkel

Marco Livingstone - judge

I hadn't spotted the derivation of Mr Cooper's drawing, but it was immediately obvious to me when judging the works that it and many others entered in the contest had been based on photographs, a by no means uncommon practice. Warhol got into trouble for this as long ago as the mid-sixties, when he was sued for screenprinting an image of flowers that he had found in magazines. Much more recently other very celebrated artists, including Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, have encountered similar problems, while an artist as visible and successful as the American painter Elizabeth Peyton has produced countless portraits of celebrities based very clearly on found photographs without (to my knowledge) ending up in court.

In the 1980s there were a number of artists who flaunted their use and recreation of images created by others. Many of these became, and remain, art world stars, like Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo. As with work by the pioneer of appropriation art in the sixties, Sturtevant, their justification was that by so blatantly recreating existing art they were provocatively questioning notions of creativity and originality. Not everybody was ready, by any means, to accept that argument, but their reputations have certainly survived.

Perhaps the problem in James Cooper's case is that he took a copyrighted image without permission and without acknowledgment and used it, with minimal reinterpretation, as the basis for his own picture. I am sure it was done innocently, as many amateur and self-taught artists would do, and without any view to monetary gain apart from the possibility of winning a prize in this contest. I think it would be rather cruel to deny him the prize, particularly given that some of the other entries have probably also been based on copyrighted photographs. Would it appease Joe Oppedisano if the use of his original photographic image were acknowledged in the title of Mr Cooper's work: Crack Takes Over Your Life (After Joe Oppedisano), 2009?

The question of where influence crosses over into copyright infringement is a tricky one, as Mr Oppedisano himself acknowledges in the derivations of some of his photographs from Tom of Finland drawings. Picasso maintained that a good artist doesn't borrow, he steals.

I completely understand that to see someone else copying his work, and being rewarded in any way for doing so, would be particularly painful for Oppedisano when he is fighting his own struggle for survival as an artist. Perhaps by publishing his letter on this website something good will come out of this for him, and that he will in turn allow James Cooper his moment of success.

Marco Livingstone

Kat Coric - judge

  1. With regards to appropriation of art, I will refer to this on line source.
  2. The photograph Batter Up is copyright of Mr. Joe Oppedisano.
  3. Mr. Cooper is infringing on artist’s copyright with the art work: Crack Takes Over Your Life.
  4. Mr. Cooper should not be allowed to disseminate nor profit from the artwork Crack Takes Over Your Life.
  5. Mr. Cooper should only be allowed to show this original drawing in his studio, as a “study or copy of the photograph Batter Up by Joe Oppedisano.”
  6. Any publication of the image Crack Takes Over Your Life should be strictly prohibited, and is deemed illegal, as it is an infringement on the copyright owned by Mr. Oppedisano (all media).

Kat Coric

Michael Taubenheim - judge

Creating Art Is Communication

The idea of art is communication. As an artist I want to share “how I see myself and the world around me” by creating art and getting people’s responses. Art is often a quote on something that has touched the artist. Looking at other artists’ work and using it as a reference in your own work is a good thing.

As an artist, it makes me proud if people respond to my work or use it as an inspiration for their own. If art creates a response or inspiration, it is successful. What better can happen?

Michael Taubenheim

In our 2005 Contest, voz_cierto used Tom Bianchi's photograph from the book On the Couch as the basis for his submission. Here are Mr. Bianchi's thoughts after reviewing both the 2005 and 2009 Contests.

Tom Bianchi - artist

TOM BIANCHI (American)
Untitled, 2002
© 2002 - 2007 Tom Bianchi
Model: Mike
VOZ_CIERTO (American)
Alone in Giovanni's Room, 2005
Acrylic on canvas, 14” x 15”

Grand Prize Winner

Tom of Finland Foundation’s
2005 Emerging Erotic Artist Contest

There is a difference between “using a pose” and “copying” another artists image. When I was in a high school art class, we were given the assignment to make a copy of another artist’s work. I chose a Lautrec and I don’t doubt that he’d turn in his grave if he saw it. I learned something about Lautrec – but I did not make a work of art. I did an academic lesson. The point is, if you let the artist you copy solve all the problems for you – composition, lighting, balance, attitude etc etc – you are short changing yourself. There is an expression about art making that I love and live by. “Every artist stands on the shoulders of artists who came before him to see a little further.” We want to know what YOU find beautiful in life – and that requires you to give free reign to your imagination and not be boxed in by someone else’s vision.

My first book, OUT OF THE STUDIO was intended to go beyond where Weber and Ritts were with their unavailable pretty straight guys – mostly in the case of Ritts - copies of his predecessors’ works. I saw the inherent internalized homophobia of that work – and by challenging what I saw – I found my own voice. Ritts was particularly unoriginal because he had a deep need to be seen as an “artist”. But he did not have an artist’s soul – one that would force him to be original rather than produce product. Be fearless in saying what you have to say and take the dialog beyond where it is. Adding your “two cents” could put you in a place where others coming up behind you can stand on your shoulders. We need to honor and encourage art that respects that tradition.

Tom Bianchi

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“In those days, a gay man was made to feel nothing but shame about his feelings and his sexuality. I wanted my drawings to counteract that, to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were. Oh, I didn’t sit down to think this all out carefully. But I knew — right from the start — that my men were going to be proud and happy men!"
— Tom of Finland